Monday, 11 July 2011

Europe Endless - My Data Date...

... or The Traveller's Fear of the Roaming Charge

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I spent the weekend flying out to Geneva and then on a road trip to Milan to see John Mellencamp before driving back to Geneva via France and the incredible Mont Blanc tunnel to catch my flight back to Manchester.

Nervous about my data use and as part of my regular travelling ultra-light policy I decided to take just one device with me... the iPhone.  It was a bit of a wrench leaving the BB, the Android, the laptop, the iPad and the Kindle... but boy doesn't that list sound insanely excessive anyway... no wonder my back hurts ;)
Anyway, it was absolutely fine.  What a machine the iPhone 4 is.  I have a £40 a month contract with Vodafone in the UK which gets you a 25mb daily data allowance when roaming in Europe.  I think that's a reasonably healthy amount actually.  Even so, I knew I had to curb my social data excesses, such as regular photo updates to Instagram and streaming of Spotify playlists on a whim via 3G.  I kept it to Twitter, the occasional email check and Gowalla check-ins at the more significant places.  I stayed away from Google+ for the weekend, not that it's data-heavy, just that it's not 'essential' yet... especially not when moving at pace around Europe...  it's more considered and less 'status'y than the things I was doing.

Fortunately, I had an evening of free wifi whilst staying with a friend near Geneva, so I was able to do a little more significant data stuff whilst there... but to be fair, the phone was tucked into my bag during much of that visit as it was about catching up and engaging IRL! - which was great to do... conversation and fine food & drink.

Saturday kicked off with a dip in Lake Geneva, followed by a light lunch in a nearby lakeside village before getting into the car for the 4 hour trip to Milan via the majestic Simplon Pass, over to the east side of the Lake and via Montreux.  I have to say that even at the highest points of this incredible mountain pass, 3G signal from Swisscom remained firmly in the four to five bar range.  Considering that I lose all form of mobile signal on my journey over the comparatively humble Pennines to Manchester every day, I though this was particularly impressive (and continues to give weight to the lie of Digital Britain!)

The other app I did use was What's App, to stay in touch with Mrs D... so much cheaper than texting and with minimal data use... I'd really recommend this simple point-to-point chat app... notifications ensure you get alerts just like an SMS... there's an Android app available too.

As I was navigating the scary switchbacks, my 9 year old son hopped onto my wife's What's App and asked me to Skype him on his iPod Touch... I did, and even though I insisted on text chat only, he was desperate for a quick glimpse of the mountains... so he got a quick 30 second glimpse of the view.  It didn't seem to have a massive impact on my data usage... I kept checking, as I'd reset the data count to zero on Settings/General/Usage.

After a great descent through the Italian alps - and with slightly less beefy 3G from TIM and the other Italian networks for some miles - we drew towards Milan and headed to the hotel we were staying at in the mediaeval town of Vigevano.

After quickly checking in, we wanted to head into town to wander round before going off to see the John Mellencamp show at the castle.  The hotel receptionist drew on a paper map a couple of car -parking suggestions, but we quickly got lost in the winding streets and the in-car BMW sat-nav was hopeless as most in-car sat-navs are.  Semi-reluctantly I fired up Google Maps to get our bearings.  It worked and we used it to plot our progress towards the centre and park.  However, even with a standard map, without heavy satellite images, my data use suddenly leapt by a full 10mb or so.

In the end, I couldn't resist sharing a couple of images, more tweets and check-ins for the show... it was great.  Efficiently, I received useful texts from Vodafone alerting me to he fact that I was approaching my 25mb usage limit and the clearly worded financial implications of exceeding it (£1 per 1mb for the next 5mb, then after that going up by £5 per 5mb in chunks).  The texts kept me up to date and I convinced myself that an overspend of around £10 was acceptable.  

By Sunday, my data had reset itself and I had another 25mb to go at... so after breakfast we headed off for the return leg to Geneva... this time via France and Mont Blanc tunnel... every bit as impressive an experience as the Simplon Pass.

Plenty of data use - I was the passenger for the whole trip so had a lot of time to enjoy and photograph the view, act as DJ and tweet/check-in to update our progress.

By the time we got back to Geneva, I'd got an alert advising me that I was about to exceed my 25mb and I reckon that I spent about another £3 or £4 on data before I had to switch my phone off for the plane, which I was prepared to pay.

So, all told, not too bad an experience as far as data-roaming goes and a great experience in terms of catching up with friends, seeing the world and going to a great show.

Once I'd landed back at Manchester my much-less-limited UK data availability let me share several more photos via Instagram, whilst on the train home, to complete the story... and a story it is...   especially if you use great services like those provided by Memolane on the web and Momento on the iPhone, which collate all of your social, media and location check-ins together to create and instant and permanent memory of your trips, your holiday, your adventures and your daily life, accessed like a diary or timeline... I do recommend that you check them out.

Let me know if this is handy.  The fear of foreign data use can kill a holiday, especially if you're someone to whom data adds some real value, but I thought this experience was reasonably cost-effective.

What do you think?

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